George Henderson was born in Scotland many years ago and has been creating music in New Zealand since the mid-1970s and releasing it fitfully since the mid-80s, mainly as The Puddle. In this our 21st Century he has taken a renewed interest in his so-called art and released a string of Puddle albums on his brother/drummer Ian’s Fishrider label. George is currently recording an album in Auckland with The New Existentialists. It’s a rock meditation on the music of the brief period of history that fell between the Beatles and the New York Dolls. Here are five films that have stayed with him…
1 – Roman Polanski’s Macbeth: The nineteen-seventies were the peak years for sex and violence in cinema, but age restrictions were strictly enforceable before digital technology. I think I was a fourth former when our English teacher took the class to see Polanksi’s lurid version of this old warhorse. Because it was Shakespeare, that made it R13, whereas if anyone else had written the screenplay it would have been R20. Shakespeare’s collaborator on the screenplay was the marvellous under-achiever Kenneth Tynan. If you can find his stuff, read it – the diaries are a good place to start. One reason that this version is so good is that Tynan had long been studying the play’s faults on the stage, first as a critic and then as literary manager of the National Theatre. Later I learned that the making of Macbeth was Polanski’s existential response to the murder of his wife, friends, and unborn son by the Manson Family. It shows. There are other favourite Polanski films, including Rosemary’s Baby and the grand failure Pirates, but Macbeth has stayed with me the longest.
2 –Alice (Něco z Alenky): This is a stop-motion version of Alice in Wonderland which interprets Lewis Carroll’s dream-story as a nightmare from the black forests of Mitteleuropa. Yarn, drawers, stuffed animals, and buttons come alive to present the well-known characters in sinister new forms. Alice (played by Kristýna Kohoutová) is, for once, young enough for her predicament to be genuinely worrying. At one level Švankmajer’s Alice reminds us that the book was a story about a young person being intellectually bullied by an endless series of unhinged adults. At another level, the domestic underpinning of Czech history and European folklore is spilling out on screen in Švankmajer’s every choice of object. Take away the English whimsy and sentimentality from this dream-story and place it in the attics of Prague and you’re suddenly much closer to Kafka.
3 – The Stranger’s Hand (La Mano dello Straniero): This British-Italian co-production of a Graham Greene screenplay about skulduggery in Venice involving Yugoslavian agents disappeared without a trace when the British decided they wanted Tito as an ally. Made by a friend of Greene’s and featuring the appearance of his hand in one scene, The Stranger’s Hand is probably the film adaptation of his work that’s truest to Greene’s deepest theme, summed up by his favourite quotation “In the childhood of Judas, Christ was betrayed”. I particularly remember that characteristic citizen of Greeneland, Dr Vivaldi, and his copy of Spengler’s Decline of The West. The Stranger’s Hand makes you feel the way Greene felt about human nature, and was the first film I ever saw of that type. Greene appreciated cinema as both Art and a record of humanity, and between 1935 and 1940 watched and reviewed thousands of movies from all around the world that appeared in the cinemas of England. These short reviews, collected in book form as The Pleasure Dome, are some of the best writing on film that we have.
4 – The Naked Kiss: This is one of those movies where you think “how did this get made?” but can’t stop watching. The characters behave outrageously and the plot is preposterously implausible – for example, it depends on the sole town cop having the authority to act as procurer, prosecutor, defence lawyer, detective, and judge, and on Constance Tower’s prostitute-on-the-run being able to get the town’s top nursing job without any obvious training. Eventually it becomes clear that these are not errors. Sam Fuller has hit on the great discovery of modern film – that cinema story-telling can be modelled on that of the comic book. This is where Natural Born Killers, Watchmen and Kill Bill pts 1 & 2 came from. There being no graphic novels in the early nineteen-sixties, instead Fuller’s stylistic inspiration appears to have been drawn from Will Eisner and EC comics. Shock Corridor, the film before The Naked Kiss, was the tour-de-force of this style; filmed as a black and white film, it was edited with bizarrely out-of-context colour footage Fuller had shot on location for earlier projects. The French nouvelle vague cinema auteurs loved Sam Fuller, and a mention of Shock Corridor turns up amidst the lopsided battlecry of Amon Düül II’s Archangel’s Thunderbird, but only Fuller’s episodic war memoir The Big Red One is likely to turn up on TV.
5 – Inferno (L’Enfer): Henri-Georges Clouzot was the director of Le Corbeau, Wages of Fear, and Les Diaboliques, all classy films with an impressive psychological tension. By the early nineteen-sixties, the nouvelle vague directors were treating him as a bit of a dinosaur. Actually, they just wished that they could make a film as fine as Le Corbeau. As a macho Gaul, Clouzot took this challenge to heart and decided that he would beat the avante garde at their own game. Playing with film-stock and incorporating concepts from kinetic sculpture and Pop Art lightshows, he somehow scored an unlimited budget from Columbia Pictures and shot hours and hours of test film before starting an on-location shoot that collapsed after three weeks. Clouzot also collapsed, with a heart attack. Inferno was lost for decades until a chance encounter in a lift between film historian and restoration expert Serge Bromberg and Clouzot’s widow. The psychological structure that was the intended heart of L’Enfer the movie is missing, and instead there’s the classical tragedy of Clouzot, his masculinity, and his over-reaching vision, illustrated with highlights from his sexy, surreal 1964 footage. This combination is as compelling as a film can be. It’s the artist as Ahab, going down with the ship, as his great white whale swims on. L’Enfer stars Romy Schnieder, who could just as easily have made this list for appearing in Bernard Tavernier’s Death Watch (1980).
It’s interesting to me that I’ve overlooked the great dialogue films in recalling this list – the likes of Sunset Boulevard, Beat the Devil, or The Big Lebowski. Instead, something more akin to poetry takes precedence. There is a place in the mind where Themroc is a better film than Citizen Kane. Don’t go there.